In space, everyone can hear Billy Crudup’s voice
It’s hard to tell if people know actor Billy Crudup more for his face or for his voice. A few years on Broadway and Off-Broadway stages led to the screen, where he’s played all sorts of roles for the past two decades: Real-life runner Steve Prefontaine in “Without Limits,” guitarist Russell in “Almost Famous,” big, blue Dr. Manhattan in “Watchmen,” and two great parts last year: Gentle, smiling William in “20th Century Women” and the nameless journalist in “Jackie.” He shifts gears with “Alien: Covenant,” in which his character must take on the challenge of becoming captain of a spaceship, even though he’s probably not ready for the responsibility. But why might you know Crudup’s deep, mellifluous voice? He had a 14-year run showing it off in the popular series of MasterCard ads that featured the word “priceless.” Crudup, 48, spoke about “Alien” and his career -- in that voice -- by phone from London.
Q: What initially got you into acting?
A: I was sort of a class clown so when I was growing up, anytime there was a school play or something where you had to dress up, I volunteered. When I got to University of North Carolina, since I didn’t really know what I wanted to do for my education or my career, I did stuff that I liked. I took different kinds of performance classes. But I didn’t want my dad to suspect that I was going to become an actor, so I majored in speech communications, because that seemed vague enough. But while I was getting my communications degree, I was performing all the time. I thought I was going to teach (acting), so I got my master’s at NYU, but I knew as soon as I was at school there that I really wanted to be an actor.
Q: How did you break that news to your father?
A: Once I started getting paychecks, then it was a pretty easy sell.
Q: Did you ever stop to think about what a difficult career it might be?
A: It’s hard to explain to people what it’s like to go from being employed in the most inspirational way possible for 3 months and then being unemployed and desperate for 6 months. The ups and downs are a difficult thing to manage. I feel like that should have been one of the classes at NYU, in addition to voice and speech.
Q: You did a lot of stage work, then broke into film. Was that always the plan?
A: My first film was “Grind.” There’s a lot of moving pieces when you’re making a film and for someone who had been studying acting for 3 years straight, you’d be surprised how little you know about making movies, so that was a pretty steep learning curve for me. My goal was to take the shotgun approach, which was make as wide a hole as you can, and try to cram yourself through it anyway you can. So any opportunity I got where I thought I could be fairly decent in the role, whether it was onstage or onscreen, that was my goal.
Q: You don’t have much science-fiction on your resume: There was “Watchmen,” now “Alien,” and next up is “The Flash.” Were you a fan of the genre when you were a kid?
A: “Star Wars” was a seminal moment for me, and I loved the “Star Trek” movies. “Alien” absolutely reshaped my life, but that was more of a horror movie to me. And I was scarred by it. I’ll never forget that thing busting out of his chest and then scurrying across the floor. I saw it when I was 11. I sneaked in, and that was a huge, huge error in judgment (laughs), but all of us were talking about it at school. It was a pretty profound cinematic experience.
Q: How did the part in the new one come your way?
A: I was in L.A. for the SAG Awards after we did “Spotlight.” I live in New York, so I called my agent and said, “While I’m out here, can I get some meetings for other parts?” He said there wasn’t much out there for me at the moment, but that I could put myself on tape for a role for this “Alien” movie. I said, “Can’t I just go meet the director?” He said, “It’s Ridley Scott, and he doesn’t really do meetings like that.” I said, “OK, well, let me read the script.” He said, “No, they’re not gonna let you read the script, either.” So they gave me the sides (some of his lines from the script), and I worked on it for about 3 days, then sent in (the tape). I didn’t hear anything for about 3 weeks, then they called and said, “OK, you got the part.” And I said, “WHAT part? And what is the MOVIE? Can you send me the script now?” And that’s when I really started to get stoked.
Q: What can you say about your character, Chris Oram?
A: He’s second in command of a colony mission. Through a set of tragic circumstances, he becomes the captain. He has to lean on his faith in order to find the fortitude to lead the crew, but he falters, and his journey is one of somebody having to pull himself up by the bootstraps after his spiritual foundations are shattered.
Q: Going off-subject for a moment, did you realize you had a special voice before the MasterCard ads?
A: You work quite extensively when you’re in school at trying to build what they call your instrument, in the way that you can exploit the best of your opportunities. I was gifted with a kind of resonant voice that, when you learn how to manipulate it in certain ways, can be very effective in storytelling.
“Alien: Covenant” opens on May 19.
-- Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now.